Spinning Revelations from Black Sheep Gathering

Bobbin of handspun yarnSo I’m going to talk about spinning, a lot, probably in nauseating detail if you’re not interested in spinning. If you don’t care about my spinning revelations, you have my permission to skip this post. I promise not to be offended.

If you’re a spinner, or you want to be, and you ever get the chance to take a class from Judith MacKenzie? Do it.

That recommendation isn’t unique to me; it originated from The Knitmore Girls Podcast. (Similarly, if you’re looking for one knitting and spinning podcast, I recommend that one.) When I was signing up for Black Sheep Gathering back in April, I had enough funds for one class, and I picked the “Yarns Recycled: Reuse and Reduce” workshop, which seemed particularly relevant to my interests, since I have a stack of secondhand sweaters rescued from Goodwill lurking in my craft room, purchased with the intention of taking them apart. Now, I’ve been collecting these sweaters for a while, and I’ve taken apart exactly one, and it was a giant pain. At the time, I didn’t even have a ball winder. Now that I do, every time I thought about it, I considered how much of a pain it is just to wind a single skein, and went, “Oh, I’ll do that. Later.” Later, of course, never arrived.

It never occurred to me to use my spinning wheel.

That’s right, guys. You can take apart sweaters, including unplying them, with your spinning wheel.

I know, right? It seems so obvious, in hindsight. That’s how you can tell it’s a brilliant idea.

Judith is full of things like that, little off-the-cuff comments that leave you flabbergasted, somewhere between, “Why didn’t I think of that?” and “How did she think of that?” Of course you’d use your spinning wheel to take a sweater apart. Of course you’d go to the Goodwill and look for cashmere sweaters. (That one, I knew.) Of course you can unply the yarn, so you can re-ply it (with itself! with something else! with your own handspun, guys!) to your desired thickness. Of course you can then drop your new yarn in the dye pot and turn it into something more attractive.

Some other useful information:

  • Tools for disassembling a sweater: magnifying glass, good light (a magnifying Ott light is the best of both worlds), scissors (or a seam ripper if you’re careful and brave), crochet hook, darning needle.
  • Sleeves always start from the cuff.
  • There are some good tutorials out there for taking apart commercial sweaters, but two things you want to look at before you bring them home are the seams (make sure they’re not surged) and the sturdiness of the yarn. Sweaters with cables are going to have sturdy yarn, because machine-knitting cables requires a certain amount of strength. Also, cables produce a lot of yarn, as anyone who’s ever knitted a cabled sweater will tell you. This works in reverse, too.
  • If the seams ARE surged but you love the material, you can cut the sweater up and use it for fabric, or shred it and add it to your drum carder, assuming you have one. (I do not, alas.)
  • When you’re disassembling a sweater, spin in the same direction that it was plied. (Yes, you want to add twist.) When you’re separating the individual plies, you’ll be spinning in the opposite direction. (So typically, when you disassemble the sweater you will spin counterclockwise, when you separate the plies you will spin clockwise, and when you re-ply it with whatever you’re plying with, you’ll ply counterclockwise again. I hope this makes sense.)
  • If you’re not reducing your sweater yarn to its component plies, you will want to ply it clockwise. (In other words, if you’re disassembling a fine-gauge sweater and then plying it with your handspun, make sure you spin your singles counterclockwise.)
  • I promise all of that will make sense when you’re actually looking at the sweater, but here’s the basic concept: Add twist when you’re turning it from sweater to plied yarn (because if the sweater is an unplied singles, removing twist will turn it back into fiber), subtract twist when you’re turning plied yarn to unplied yarn, and add twist again when you’re plying it with something else.

Then she handed us a cashmere-silk blend to spin. Which was amazing. Spinning cashmere, by the way, is an insanely slippery business. Don’t relax, because when you do, it’ll get away from you and break. A lot. I think I spent more time standing up and re-threading my singles than I did actually spinning. (This is probably not true. But it certainly felt that way.)

After we spun that, and took apart a piece of cashmere sweater, and plied the two together, she gave us all a little bit of baby camel/silk blend to spin. I don’t think I’ve ever touched baby camel fiber. Unsurprisingly, the three-ply yarn I produced was not very good, but the experience was incredible.

Somewhere in there, I figured out that my default spinning technique is a modified long-draw, which produces a semi-woolen singles (appropriate for what I was spinning, even). I sort of knew that intellectually, but I also figured out how to spin worsted, which has eluded me since I first started spinning. I figured out how to adjust my wheel in ways that I’d never thought to. Just being in the room with Judith, and watching her spin, and listening to her talk, put me in a headspace where I could think about and observe (and improve!) my spinning in a way I’d never managed before. Also, being in a room with a bunch of other spinners made me feel much better about my own spinning ability.

Confession time: I’m super-smart. I don’t say that to brag, or make anybody feel bad, or anything like that. My intelligence isn’t something I did anything to have; it’s as much a part of me as my height or my eye color or my skin tone. I’m fair but I don’t sunburn easily, I can’t see more than six inches in front of my face without my glasses, and I absorb information like air. I didn’t earn any of these traits, they came with my body.

What this means is that a lot of things that other people have to work for come very easily to me. I didn’t have to study until I was in college, and even then, not very much. I’ve gotten compliments on my writing since I was in second grade. Again: this is not intended as bragging. I don’t think being smart makes me a better person. In fact, 9 times out of 10 I’m genuinely surprised by being better than someone else at something – “Remember, xyz thing? Wait, you don’t remember that? But…we read it for class… and I know you did the reading… and… oh. Never mind.” (I have had lots of conversations like that. Also conversations like, “Oh, you just do this thing like that. It’s easy. No, really, it’s totally easy.” And it’s not, for them.) What it means is that I am easily frustrated by things I’m not naturally good at. I don’t know how to work hard to make myself better, because I’ve never really had to. I win the race because I start 25 yards in front of everybody else for the 50-yard dash, not because I’ve trained for years to become an amazing runner.

Usually, physical things are hard for me. I’m a terrible dancer. I can’t turn a cartwheel. I could never win the actual 50-yard dash, even with a 25-yard head start. I consider it somewhat amazing that I’m a good driver, because I’m prone to running into doorjambs and corners when I’m just walking. I drop everything. Knitting, however, came easily to me, and maybe I’m casually dismissive of my own ability to knit in the same way I’m casually dismissive of my ability to remember things. (Um, so, if you’re not where I am after two years of knitting, and you feel like I lied to you about how easy it was? It’s probably not you. It’s probably just me. Sorry?)

Similarly, when I sat down at the rigid heddle loom for the first time, my weaving teacher was stunned at how good I was at it. (Again: not bragging. It’s not anything I did.) She made jokes about how I must have ancestral weaving memories.

Spinning was not like that.

Spinning is one of the few things I’ve not only had to work at, but wanted to. I get impatient and frustrated and walk away from the wheel for weeks at a time, but I enjoy doing it, and I know I’m getting better. The intro to spinning class I took, though, my other classmate was a spinning natural. She took to it like she’d been doing it all her life. The other people I had to compare myself against (not many) were all ridiculously good at it. So being in that classroom, with other people who were having the same problems I was, made me feel like I wasn’t a dunce after all. (I hope that little confession doesn’t make you think less of me.)

Near the end of class, we learned how to spin paper. Specifically, sewing-pattern paper.

Apparently there’s a lot of historical precedent for turning paper into clothing, including a fourteenth-century jacket from Japan that was created out of rent receipts. Spun and knitted (or woven) paper is machine washable and dryable. Theoretically, you can spin out of any kind of paper, but sewing patterns are particularly good for it. They’re made out of banana fibers, and they’re very sturdy. Also, I have yet to walk into a thrift store that didn’t have a ton of sewing patterns available for very little money. Cut it into long strips. Here’s a trick: if you want it soft (like for a garment or accessory), crumple it first. Ball it up in your hand. If you want it sturdy (like for a basket), don’t. Overlap the end of one strip and the beginning of the next, for a continuous strand. You can also ply paper with other things – cashmere from rescued sweaters, handspun singles, commercial yarn, whatever suits you. Pretend you work for Habu Textiles, and go crazy.

If you have any questions about all this, feel free to drop me a line (rippingback at gmail dot com) or leave me a comment, and I’ll try and explain better.

Or, if you get the opportunity, take a class from Judith. It doesn’t matter what class; being in her very presence is apparently enough to level you up as a spinner.

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~ by Amber on July 1, 2012.

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